Eleanor Updegraff - General Care Projects in Argentina
Arriving in Cordoba airport at the end of an exhausting journey, I was full of nervous expectations about my coming two months working on a care project. I was met by two smiling Projects Abroad representatives, and instantly my nerves vanished as they helped me into a taxi and we sped off to my host family’s house. Crossing Buenos Aires I had already experienced the hectic Argentinean traffic; it is certainly something that takes getting used to – crossing the road can be an adventure in itself! But we arrived safely, and my host mother rushed out of the door to greet me with a wide smile and a hug.
First impressions of Argentina
Before going to Argentina I had never spoken a word of Spanish in my life, aside from practising from my phrasebook on the plane journey! My host parents knew only a few words of English, but they had hosted volunteers before and knew that a smile and gestures go a long way, and so we managed to communicate perfectly well. I did take Spanish lessons three times a week with Projects Abroad which were very helpful, and I learned a lot from everyday life simply because I had to – by the end of my placement, I felt that my Spanish was actually quite good!
My first day, Monday, was an induction day, in which a member of staff showed me how to get to the Projects Abroad office, where to buy things and how to use the buses. I was helped to buy a sim card for my phone so I could use it to make calls cheaply and we finished with a tour around the shopping centre and a pizza in a leafy street. In the afternoon, my host parents took me into the centre of town again to show me around and do some shopping with them, and then treated me to an ice cream – definitely one of the highlights of Argentinean food, which soon became a Friday evening tradition for my friends and me! My first day of work began the following afternoon, when I was introduced to my placement, the Eva Peron orphanage, not far from where I lived on the edge of Cordoba.
My care placement in an Argentinean orphanage
I was working with another volunteer on the afternoon shift at the orphanage, from two until eight every day. When we arrived the children would be having their afternoon nap and so we would sit and talk to the staff – a good opportunity to practise our Spanish – or prepare activities to do with the children later on. After about half an hour they would wake up and from then on the day became very noisy! We helped to change and dress them and brush their hair, and fed them their afternoon snack, after which they could play outside or do arts and crafts with us. Every day followed the same routine, ending with bath-time and then dinner, at which point we could go home, but each day was also always different.
Sometimes we simply played outside with the children, who loved to be pushed on the swings or have someone help them on the climbing frame, and we made posters and jewellery and displays to decorate the orphanage with them. We also held short English lessons, to teach them the colours and numbers and other basic words – the older ones who attended school were always keen to learn and kept asking what our clothes or flowers were called in English.
The orphanage staff were very busy, and so our main job was to be an extra pair of hands to help with the practical side of looking after the children, and also to give them the love and attention that the staff couldn’t always give them. They all loved to be cuddled and picked up and tickled and played with, whether it was through an organised activity or just running around in the garden. I was ‘adopted’ by a two-year-old girl, Florencia, who took me on as her mother and came running to me every day when she woke from her nap to be changed and dressed. It became quite a joke with the orphanage staff, who would say whenever Florencia threw a tantrum, ‘She’s your daughter, you sort her out!’ On a few occasions we did something special, like had a party for the children or took a few of them to the swings nearby, but some of our happiest afternoons were just spent playing with them on the swings and climbing frames outside.
We made good friends with the staff at the orphanage, who couldn’t speak English but were very patient with us and always explained everything as clearly as they could, and put up with our at first numerous mistakes in Spanish! Every afternoon we would sit down to have a break and drink a cup of tea or mate together – a very important social aspect of Argentinean life – and soon were taking it in turns to buy the biscuits for us all to share. One evening we went out for dinner with them after work, and over the weeks found out a lot from each other about our respective cultures.
Making friends and travelling through Argentina
There were a lot of volunteers in Cordoba, who came from all over the world. I was introduced to most of them at the end of my first week, on a Projects Abroad social evening, and kept meeting more people as new volunteers arrived throughout my time there. I made some fantastic friends whom I still keep in touch with, and had a wonderful social life. Groups of volunteers often met up in the evenings or did things together at the weekends – we explored the area around Cordoba, such as an afternoon of sunbathing by the lake at Villa Carlos Paz, a visit to Che Guevara’s house in the town of Alta Gracia and horse-riding with gauchos in the beautiful mountains in La Cumbre. One weekend we took an overnight bus to Mendoza where we spent the weekend tasting wine in the vineyards and relaxing in thermal hot springs perched on the edge of the Andes. And when the weather got very hot in December, we spent our afternoons cooling down by the edge of the river at Cuesta Blanca.
Cordoba itself holds a fantastic artisans market where we would spend our Sunday evenings shopping, and there were so many opportunities for going out in the evenings and exploring the local area at weekends. In my free time I had Spanish lessons with Projects Abroad, joined a gym and had riding and tango lessons – there was a lot to do and I tried to do as much of it as I could, to get the most out of my time there.
My final days in Argentina
At the end of my two months, I could hardly believe that I was going to be going home and not coming back – it was so easy to create a life in Cordoba, with my work and friends and quickly picked-up knowledge of the city. It was especially difficult to leave the children, particularly my ‘little girl’ Florencia, at the orphanage, because I had loved playing with them every day and bringing them some happiness and love which they so desperately needed. I still keep in touch with the friends whom I made there, and I am sure I always will – we are hoping to go back in the near future to visit our orphanage and host families. Being in Cordoba was an incredible experience which taught me a lot and which I will never forget – I have many happy memories (and photographs!) of those two months. And, because I loved it so much, I am going later this month to Ethiopia with Projects Abroad, to do another care placement there.
Argentina is a wonderful country, full of friendly people, smiles, beautiful scenery and weather, and a relaxed, sociable atmosphere. You are guaranteed to make friends for life and fall in love with the country, culture and people who are so welcoming, and at the end, probably not want to leave. If you put your all into the placement and the country you will get all it has to give back – and that is more than you could ever imagine.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.